From the past: Klan's time in Minnesota

Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota
This 1925 photo provided by the Steele County Historical Society via the The Rochester Post-Bulletin, shows the state Ku Klux Klan conclave at the Steele County Fairgrounds, in Owatonna, Minn.
AP via Steele County Historical Society via The Rochester Post-Bulletin

By Matthew Stolle, Rochester Post-Bulletin
This article was originally published in 2010.

They marched up the church aisle to the strains of "Onward, Christian Soldiers" dressed in their trademark white robes and conical-shaped hats. At their head was a man carrying an American flag.

The robed men lined up in front of the church, and once the singing had ended, the leader of the procession turned to the church's pastor and thanked him for his efforts in promoting a "real Americanism." The Klansman then presented the pastor with a purse in token of the group's appreciation, kneeled and prayed.

It may be hard to believe now, but such was the scene that unfolded in the Old Concord Christian Church in Dodge County as described in a Sept. 12, 1924, story in the Owatonna Journal Chronicle. The eyewitness account also offers a glimpse into an all-but-forgotten aspect of Minnesota history: The rise of the Klu Klux Klan in southeastern Minnesota and across the state and nation.

The Klan was looking to preserve "its way of life and supremacy," said Nancy Vaillancourt, a Blooming Prairie librarian who has spent the last seven years unearthing the history of the Klan's little-known resurgence in the area and is co-authoring an article about the Klan in this month's edition of Minnesota History Magazine.

"They didn't want to be bothered by other groups. They wanted to be the ones who were the leaders, who were the dominant forces for society," she said about a group made up of people who were white, working-class and Protestant.

Though commonly thought of as a phenomenon of the post-Civil War South, the Klan also briefly flourished in early decades of the 20th century. And for a time, in the southeastern Minnesota area where secret Klan meetings, parades and cross-burnings were occasionally staged.

In its heyday in the mid-1920s, the Klu Klux Klan had chapters chartered in cities throughout the region, including Waseca, Kenyon, Dodge Center and Rochester.

Its revival was part of the founding of the second Klan, a phenomenon spurred by post-World War I anxieties. The North was industrializing, attracting waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as Southern blacks and whites. The combustible social tensions that mix created fueled the rise of the Klan, including in southeast Minnesota.

It's not something you'll see touted by civic promoters, but Albert Lea reportedly hosted the first Ku Klux Klan parade in Minnesota in August 1923.

Vaillancourt also said Red Wing was the site of several cross burnings on the bluffs in 1923, along with fireworks displays. There was even a women's group in Owatonna called the WKKK, and the Steele County organization hosted three straight state Klan conclaves in the mid-1920s.

At its height, the Klan claimed 100,000 members in Minnesota in 1924, although some dispute those numbers as inflated given the Klan's tendency to exaggerate its size.

Much of this unsavory chapter would likely have remained locked away in forgotten files and dusty archives if not for the sleuthing of Vaillancourt and co-author Elizabeth Dorsey.

Some don't appreciate Vaillancourt shining a light on this sordid history.

When the local KKK's activities were mentioned in the Owatonna People's Press as part of the city's sesquicentennial celebration, some readers called to complain, saying it wasn't true. But Vaillancourt says she is proud to have uncovered an aspect of history that most would sooner forget.

"By trying to forget, they're not learning from the past. Yes, maybe we're forcing them to look at it. Maybe they don't want to look at it, but it happened, and I think it needs to be known," she said.

Vaillancourt said her first brush with stories of the KKK's existence in the area came as a young girl. Her German-speaking grandfather told her that Klan members in Stockton used intimidation and coercion to keep their immigrant neighbors from speaking German. It was during World War I, America was at war with Germany, and both her grandfather and uncle saw Klan crosses burn in Stockton, she said.

But the war was only part of the reason for the group's rebirth. Another factor was the movie "Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's silent film and a Hollywood blockbuster, which cast the Klan as heroic, noble and a protector of feminine virtue.

The Minnesota version of the Klan was shaped by its own preoccupations and prejudices. Area Klansmen were less focused on oppressing blacks, of which there were few in Minnesota at the time, than Catholics, Jews, foreigners and anyone else they viewed as threat to their way of life.

Although undeniably racist and anti-Catholic in character, the Minnesota Klan appears to have been a less violent entity than the lawless Klan that rampaged across the deep South. Vaillancourt's research uncovered no lynchings attributed to Klan groups in Minnesota. With its state and national structure, the Klan operated in many ways as a fraternal organization.

"They had family organizations. They tried to make it a whole social group," Vaillancourt said.

Much as it tried, though, the Klan was never able to shed the negative southern associations attached to it. Apologists sought to portray the Klan as misunderstood, a victim of dated societal attitudes, but to little avail.

Vaillancourt said groups targeted by the Klan fought back. Catholics organized boycotts of Klan businesses and worked to expose its members as bigots.

Like many fraternal groups, the Klan wrapped itself in an aura of mystery and intrigue by holding secret meetings. Klan opponents worked to unmask them.

Once, when a group of opponents learned that Klan members were meeting in a nearby school, they drove to the school and waited outside for the conclave to end. When the Klan members emerged, the drivers flashed on their headlights and captured them in a flood of light.

The demise of the Klan was also accelerated by the bad behavior of its own leaders. When a Klan leader in Indiana raped a woman and left her for dead, he boasted that no jury would convict a Klan member, Vaillancourt said.

Public opinion turned against the Klan. By the 1930s, the group was a spent force, its few remaining adherents meeting, if at all, underground.

Vaillancourt said she and her co-author would like to continue their research with an eye perhaps to writing a book.

"The goal of the Klan was to have a group in every county in every state. What I would like to do is reach every county in Minnesota (to determine) which counties had active Klans," she said.

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Information from: Post-Bulletin (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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